Photo Courtesy of Maryam AlShehhi

Exploring Khaleejiness: Reflection of a Visitor

I entered Khaleejiness not knowing what to expect. But soon I realized that it is beyond an art exhibition. I felt that everything around me is trying to speak its content effortlessly, spilling tea that exists somewhere in its space.

Oct 31, 2021

“Khaleejiness?” I paused. What an interesting title for an art exhibition. I paused again, not knowing what to expect when I went in. I had an image in mind, of girls in traditional dresses and men in white Kanduras, not the showcasing of the diversity of the Khaleej. I decided to pause again and wait for Khaleejiness to speak to me— slowly, one artwork at a time.
Khaleejiness is an exhibition running at Manarat Al Saadiyat from Aug. 31, 2021 to Feb. 10, 2022. The name hints toward the ambiguity of the Khaleej, the Gulf region. These unknowns remain there until one visits and allows the art pieces and place to speak to them.
At a small entryway to the exhibition, I was welcomed by different installations and pictures; I saw sand, two women standing across from each other.. I observed a cabinet with pink lightning and phones hanging from the roof. As I walked past the hanging phones at the entrance, I felt nostalgic, comfortable almost, as I entered a traditional living room with vibrant couches, radio players and mini bottles. It’s beyond an art exhibition,.I felt everything around me clamouring to be seen and heard, spilling tea that exists somewhere in its space.
I tried to relate everything I saw to the term Khaleejiness but at first, I could not understand the mumbles. I paused again, took a step back and listened closely to each piece. Every single one displayed great artistic freedom: constructions of personal belonging, politics of cultural identity and the intimacy of love running across the walls. The works speak of issues that we never openly hear about in the Gulf. Khaleejiness breaks that silence. The art refreshingly tackles societal taboos that are very common, but often feel very distant.
I smiled when I read the title “lover’s corners,” which has shelves decorated with mini bottles, each containing a letter previous visitors to the exhibition had written to their loved ones. Love has always been one of those topics we talk about behind closed doors, especially when it comes to non marital relationships, although it exists all around us.
There’s always this silence that exists about conversations surrounding love, body and identity in the Gulf, but Khaleejiness breaks that silence. Walking along the exhibition, I heard voices mumbling in different dialects yet still in Arabic. Some dialects were familiar, others took a second to comprehend, but I heard the conversations well when I leaned closer.
I wondered who the audience was. Why does it feel like people from the Gulf region are whispering to each other in a private conversation?
“I understand, yes, you have a point, definitely, wow,” I mumbled to the artists that were trying to tell me something in intangible and tangible art. I never said tell me more because there was a lot going on in this vocal space.
One particular space that tooks me somewhere elsewas Ali Al Hosani’s theater room, or what he calls Mise en Abyme, an image within an image). This emphasizes the sensation of constantly trying to reshape to fit into a space, something similar to performing a play within a play. In the scene he staged in a black room, portraits of cinematic makeup adorned the wall and a chair sat on the side of a desk cluttered with makeup, scripts and tissues. Alhosani’s stage critiques the idea of dressing up to fit an identity that an individual doesn’t necessarily associate with.
The last destination in the exhibition was a room filled with mirrors and plants. As simple as it seemed, this room allowed me to rest but also use the mirrors surrounding me to reflect on the exhibition. The following sentence was written on the mirrors:
“So, how do we bloom and move forward as a society? Through acceptance and the celebration of individuality”
Is this space the resolution? After going through a full plot, I wonder ifthe exhibition ended there. One sentence, a question and an answer. It seems really basic and simple but carries a lot. A rollercoaster of dialects mumbling and whispering and here’s where I pause to relax. There is a lot to be done but we start here, a conversation on Khaleejiness.
This exhibition is a lot to digest. What do these conversations mean to the city that’s leaning toward having an open discourse on subjects related to societal taboos, concepts of love behind closed doors and giving space to artistic and physical freedom?
Khaleejiness embraces instead of shying away from such conversations. I left the exhibition writing two intimate letters on tiny papers, rolled carefully, tied with a brown ribbon and placed inside the bottles. The bottles belong to the lover’s club — and so do my wishes.
Maryam AlShehhi is a Contributing Writer. Email her at
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